In the years before the Civil War, a spike occurred in descriptions of the bizarre, the mysterious, the ideal—there were demonstrably more dreams of stupefaction or amazement. By this time, vivid dreamers were often perfectly willing to dismiss physicians’ warnings that dreams meant only disturbed sleep. As Henry David Thoreau noted around mid-century, dreams had the power to expose an individual’s deepest feelings: “Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.” He meant that in the midst of dream-borne deceptions, we “awake” in moral terms—experiencing epiphanies that could positively inform our behavior in waking life.
The principal difference between yesterday’s dreamers and today’s is the sizable percentage who believed, as the ancients did, that dreams prophesied. Mark Twain, for instance, recorded in his autobiography that he dreamed of his younger brother’s death in a riverboat explosion, not long before the event took place. “He lay in a metallic burial case,” Twain recollected of the dream. “He was dressed in a suit of my clothing, and on his breast lay a great bouquet of flowers, mainly white roses.” The images he’d seen subconsciously were so true to life that when he eventually cast his eyes on his brother’s corpse, and saw the white roses an elderly woman had placed there, Twain’s attitude toward dreams was forever changed. He went on to join the Society for Psychical Research, wrote short stories centered on recurrent dreams, and, after one 1884 dream where he saw himself as “a knight errant in armor,” penned an entire novel about the dreamt experience: “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
Perhaps there was something in the air in Hannibal, Mo., Twain’s hometown, because in 1894, an Iowa man visiting Hannibal dreamed that he was on a train, and a stranger asked him where he was going. “To the bedside of my dying boy,” he replied. The following day he received a telegram confirming the substance of his dream, and on the train home the dialogue from his dream played out. “I am not at all superstitious,” he wrote, “yet I could not shake it off.” Even more curious was a story in the St. Louis Republic in 1899. A young woman in the mining town of Prosperity, Mo., was accused in her husband’s murder. As she lay in her jail cell, she rose from a powerful dream in which her dead husband appeared before her and named his killer. “Whether what she had seen was a spirit, or only the dream of a disordered mind, she could not tell,” the reporter explained. The widow recounted the dream to her jailer. “Impressed by its vividness,” he asked the police to investigate. The suspect was located, and everything fell into place—the killer promptly confessed.
Even if it is no longer fashionable to say that dreams foretell the future, and though Freud’s primarily sexual reading of dream symbolism has now been largely dismissed as an overreach, we remain fascinated by dreams today. Popular dream guides still sell, therapists explore dream narratives with their patients, Internet sites on dream lore abound. We recognize dreams as a unique form of autobiographical evidence—we are convinced that they tell us something meaningful about our basic impulses.
To look beyond our own dreams into those of the past promises to spark new insights: It is a vision of American history from the inside out. How many people do you know who see red horses diving into a languid pool and rising from below with flowers? Dreams, after all, are images of emotional time; they conform to cultural expectations, and to look back at dreams is to see what those expectations were. By reading the dreams of earlier generations of Americans, we open a strangely intimate new window onto their lives. What we see there, in these autobiographical fragments, puts us on the road to unraveling the past’s mystery.
Andrew Burstein is the author of “Lincoln Dreamt He Died: The Midnight Visions of Remarkable Americans from Colonial Times to Freud” (Palgrave, May 2013).